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Rhythm of the Past is the Rhythm of the Future: Ustad Dildar Hussain Khan

The Rhythm of the Past is the Rhythm of the Future: Ustad Dildar Hussain Khan, Sur Sangeet, and the Seven Hundred-Year-Old Reinvention of Qawwali’s Groove

Beautiful, soaring Qawwali music goes back at least 700 years. Springing from a blend of Persian and Subcontinental music, its devotional sound based in Sufism can induce hypnotic states with its power. Each generation has added something to the music, and Pakistan’s Ustad Dildar Hussain Khan and Party reinvent Qawwali for the 21st century on their new Sur Sangeet album. There’s full reverence for the tradition, but also a fresh, groove-oriented approach, one that jumps forward from its Punjabi roots.

“Music should lift the heart and the spirit,” Dildar explains. ‘That’s the essence of Qawwali. It’s glorification. But to do that it has to communicate, it has to reach out.”

And Ustad – the title means master or teacher – Dildar Hussain Khan certainly understands the essence of Qawwali. Born in Punjab, his father was a Qawwali musician, and he began playing tabla when he was just five years old. Just 10 years later the prodigy was working with the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the greatest of all Qawwali singers. Together they toured the world for 28 years bringing Qawwali music to international attention and collaborating with Peter Gabriel, Pearl Jam, and a host of others. Their musical partnership lasted until Nusrat’s premature death in 1997.

Sur Sangeet is very much a family album. The Party features Dildar’s son, Abrar Hussain, on soaring vocals, and two of his other sons on vocals and percussion. But the fulcrum is very much Dildar himself. As well as tabla, he’s featured on harmonium and vocals, confirming him as a musician of towering stature.

Dildar’s connection of past and present shows perfectly on the tabla solo “Dhamaal,” that showcases his style, which comes from his native Punjab. In part that’s because the tablas he uses are different from the tablas more commonly heard in classical Indian music; the jori treble drum is crisper, while the dhamma offers a deeper, warmer bass sound.

“His playing is phenomenal, very in the pocket and has earned him a fan base amongst western musicians from Peter Gabriel and Rick Rubin to Slash and Eddie Vedder,” says Aja Salvatore, one of the driving forces behind Kanaga System Krush Records. The label initially specialized in West African music, but Dildar’s style felt like a natural extension of the label’s world-friendly, rhythm-loving aesthetic. “It’s different from what you normally hear in Qawwali. It has a very strong groove."

It is front and center on the jazz-suggesting mode of “Sar Tajen Ke Taj,” where that wonderful groove powers the piece. On “Kaharva,” Dildar traces a path through history with a style of playing that’s a millennium old but which would just as easily be at home in Memphis or New Orleans. What’s old is new again.

“I always dug his playing with Nusrat, as well as his modern collaborations with pop and rock musicians in the west ” Salvatore recalls. “A friend of mine had studied with him. I’m a drummer myself, so I know how much of a virtuoso he is. I was drumming for a dance class, he showed up and we began talking. We really hit it off and I suggested the album.”

While most Qawwali recordings focus on the ecstasy or voice and words, onSur Sangeet the tablas are high in the mix, the intoxicating rhythms every bit as vital to the sound as Abrar Hussain’s impassioned vocals.Salvatore’s production emphasizes the natural funkiness in Dildar’s Punjabi style, connecting the dots between Pakistan, West Africa, and America. It’s a small, subtle revolution. The album also introduces Dildar Hussain as a composer, putting a melody to the poetry of Iqbal Ranja on “Ya Farid,” which also features his mesmerizing singing, an illustration that during his years with Nusrat he learned a great deal.

With the inclusion of Dildar’s sons in the Party, Sur Sangeet also brings another link in the chain. He might not be handing over the baton yet, but he’s bringing on the next generation, and they add their own touches. Israr Hussain is the heir to his father’s tabla style, while Abrar sets his own soulful standard as a singer. “These are my children,” says Dildar. “This is their music, too, and I want them to have the freedom to express it as they wish.

Playing for more than half a century, Ustad Dildar Hussain Khan has long been hailed as one of the leading figures of Sufi music. With Sur Sangeet he shows that looking backward – using the older style of tabla drums and that ancient Punjabi style of playing – he’s also looking quite firmly ahead. Not just for himself. Not even for his sons. But for the music itself. Qawwali’s found its groove.